Conditions & Treatments

Sciatica

Sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain that originates along the sciatic nerve, which extends from the back of the pelvis down the back of the thigh.

Sciatica

What is sciatica?

Sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain that originates along the sciatic nerve, which extends from the back of the pelvis down the back of the thigh. The sciatic nerve is the primary nerve of the leg. It is also the largest nerve in the entire body.

What causes sciatica?

Frequently, sciatica is caused by a herniated disk in the spine that presses on the sciatic nerve. Other causes that may put pressure on the sciatic nerve may include the following:

  • Obesity

  • Poor posture

  • Tumor

  • Abscess

  • Blood clot

  • Awkward sitting position

  • Any nerve disorders

  • Piriformis syndrome, or entrapment of the nerve by muscle and connective tissue 

Sometimes a cause for the sciatica cannot be identified.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

The following are the most common symptoms of sciatica. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Lower back pain that radiates down the buttock and back of 1 thigh

  • Pain that extends from the buttock down to the foot

  • Numbness (in severe cases)

  • Weakness (in severe cases)

The symptoms of sciatica may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult a doctor for a diagnosis.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for sciatica may include the following:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Electromyography and nerve conduction study (EMG and NCS). A diagnostic procedure conducted together that records and analyzes electrical impulses in the muscles. During the EMG, thin needles are placed in the muscle to record electrical activity. The NCS is often done along with the EMG to determine if a nerve is functioning normally. Electrodes are then placed in various locations on the skin along the nerve pathway. When stimulating the nerve at various places, the doctor can then determine the specific site of the injury.

What is the treatment for sciatica?

Specific treatment for sciatica will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Sciatica usually heals on its own with rest and time. To help relieve the pain, treatment may include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications

  • Heat or cold applications to the sore muscles

  • Movement (keeping your body in motion minimizes inflammation)

  • Surgery (to repair a herniated disk if one is present and if the condition persists)

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



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